class inversion as an alternative to the polarization thesis

One deep story that’s being told about our current political crisis invokes polarization: two “poles” or ends of the spectrum are seen as moving apart and growing mutually hostile. That is a symmetrical metaphor. A different deep story emphasizes the anti-democratic and anti-constitutional turn of MAGA-style Republicans. I would add a third model that involves both parties, but not in a symmetrical way. It is also less about ideas and policies than interests and identities. It’s a story of inverted partisanship.

Envision a democracy with two main parties or coalitions. The left party favors more taxing, spending, and regulation and draws most of its votes from the lower half of the economic scale. The right party opposes government economic intervention and draws its support from the upper half.

This kind of system can be frustrating, since the median voter (who probably comes from the middle of the economic scale) often wields the deciding vote. Both socialist and libertarian principles are somewhat disfavored. However, if you are a socialist or a libertarian, you should believe that you can convince the median voter of your ideas. Meanwhile, the debate is a good one, because citizens can determine the role of government. And both sides are constrained. The left may want lots of government, but as taxes and regulation rise, so will resistance. The right may love markets, but cutting government deeply also creates opposition. The whole system is pretty stable–for better and worse–and it tends to reward ideas that benefit most people.

Now switch the demographics of the parties, so that the rich vote for the left and the poor vote for the right. In that situation, the left will not really do anything substantial to promote equity, because that would cost its affluent voters. You will see lots of virtue-signaling; superficial policies, hypocritically applied; and odd priorities, such as forgiving college debt but not medical debt. Meanwhile, the right will not get far by cutting taxes, since low-income people pay little or no income tax. The right will look for other ways to benefit its constituency, probably including appeals to racial, national, and/or religious identity.

In this situation, the path to ambitious progressive policies is blocked by the left party itself, while the right party is prone to dangerous escalation. You’ll see statements like John Daniel Davidson’s “We Need To Stop Calling Ourselves Conservatives” in The Federalist (Oct 22). Davidson floats adopting a “pro-worker, even pro-union political agenda that once belonged to the left” and displaying “a willingness to embrace government power.” But to what end? “Drag Queen Story Hour should be outlawed,” “parents who take their kids to drag shows should be arrested and charged with child abuse” and “teachers who expose their students to sexually explicit material should not just be fired but be criminally prosecuted.”

Davidson is not a political strategist, and many of his ideas would poll very poorly. In that sense, his own agenda would be constrained by voters. However, partisan political entrepreneurs on the right can develop cannier agendas that win Republican primary elections and legislative majorities in selected states and give them substantial power. They will not arrest parents for attending constitutionally protected public events, but they will arrest Black men for registering to vote in good faith or transport asylum-seekers to Martha’s Vineyard.

I think a model of a class inversion is more informative than one of “polarization,” which assumes that two durable coalitions have moved apart. In contrast, the inversion model presumes that some people have changed their parties–like the Obama-Trump voters of Luzerne County, PA.

There are signs of this class inversion in many democracies today. However, the picture in the USA is mixed, because wealth, race, and education don’t push in the same directions. Right now, according to the Washington Post-ABC poll, household income does not predict people’s opinion of the 2022 election very well. Democrats perform just a touch better among households earning less than $50,000 per year, and Republicans do better above that threshold, but the whole graph (see above) is pretty flat. That’s because income and being white correlate with support for Republicans, whereas education and being black correlate with Democratic support. The result is our somewhat mixed situation, in which the parties fumble between their traditional roles and inverted ones.

I am fully aware that race is at the heart of the issue in the United States–as it has been all along in this country. However, that observation should be the beginning of the conversation, not the conclusion. If the parties invert their class positions because of white racism, then the whole system is in trouble. Socialists, moderates, libertarians, and constitutionalists should all be alarmed. Again, this is not a new threat today; the end of Reconstruction offers a frightening precedent. But it will be a tough trap for our republic to escape.

Real constitutionalist conservatives have critical work to do on their side of the aisle. Meanwhile, Democrats need to win the votes of more low-income whites, whether that means taking Heather McGee’s advice to explain how racial injustice also harms whites, or taking Ruy Teixeira’s advice to reclaim patriotism and certain traditional values, or running campaigns like Tim Ryan’s in Ohio, or simply doing more to benefit low-income communities that include a lot of white voters.

See also the social class inversion as a threat to democracy; social class in the French election; why the white working class must organize etc.

Mapping Ideologies as Networks of Ideas

Newly published (behind a firewall): Peter Levine (2022) Mapping ideologies as networks of ideas, Journal of Political Ideologies, DOI: 10.1080/13569317.2022.2138293.

This is an early publication from my main current scholarly project. I am concerned that several streams of research and intellectual conversations are converging on the same conclusion: people just aren’t very thoughtful or rational about politics. This stance discourages efforts to enhance democracy and the public sphere. However, the most prevalent measurement tools–standard opinion surveys–are systematically biased against detecting the complexity and individuality of individuals’ political views. Various colleagues and I are experimenting with alternative quantitative methods that involve directly asking people about the connections among their distinct beliefs and analyzing the results as networks. This sole-authored article is a pilot study aimed at validating the method.


Individuals in a non-representative sample of 93 US progressives were asked which social outcomes they valued and then asked about the relationships among these opinions. Did each outcome provide a reason for a different one? Would each outcome cause a different one? If each outcome came to pass, would it make them more likely to support another outcome? Network diagrams derived from these responses represent portions of these individuals’ ideologies, understood as structures of political thought. Scrutiny of the network diagrams and analysis of the aggregate data suggest that most respondents carefully and reasonably identified relationships among their own ideas. Features of their networks predicted their assessments of five prominent politicians. This exploratory study paints a strikingly different picture of the sample than what would emerge from more conventional methods, such as factor analysis. Instead of a group that looks ideologically homogeneous on a unidimensional scale or that exhibits a low level of ideological coherence (because very few of their ideas are correlated), this method displays a collection of people who hold diverse and complex structures of thought. The method should be replicated with representative samples to explore the variation and significance of such structures.

See also: what if people’s political opinions are very heterogeneous?;  individuals in cultures: the concept of an idiodictuonideologies and complex systemsdon’t let the behavioral revolution make you fatalistic, etc.

who are today’s republicans (in the classic sense of the word)?

In our Introduction to Civic Studies course, we are briefly discussing both the classical tradition of republican thought (from Cicero to John Adams) and the contributions of Black American republican thinkers of the 19th century, as described by Melvin Rogers (2020). In this brief introductory video, I identify the following components of traditional republicanism:

  • Opposition to domination (which republicanism defines as the basic problem)
  • Rule of law
  • Separation of powers
  • Deliberation
  • The common good
  • Popular participation (going beyond voting, which by itself can allow domination by the majority)
  • Anti-elitism
  • Civic virtues and an expectation of sacrifice for the common good

One of our US political parties happens to be called “Republican,” and I think that is not merely coincidental. The GOP has roots in antebellum abolitionist movements that, in turn, explicitly invoked republican ideas.

But that doesn’t mean that either of our major parties today is necessarily more republican (in the classical sense) than the other. The recent Civic Language Perceptions Project from Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) offers a chance to see how partisanship–as well as demographics–relate to classical republican ideals. Not all of the components of republicanism are tested, but some are. The data come from a nationally representative random sample of 5,000 registered voters conducted in 2021.

One component of traditional republicanism was an orientation to the common good. That phrase might seem like empty rhetoric, but classical republican authors placed the common good ahead of individual negative freedom, material prosperity, and pluralism, which they often decried as “factionalism.”

PACE asked respondents to react to the phrase “common good,” and it performed best among people who identified as “very liberal.” (See the graph above.)

Patriotism is not on my list of components of republicanism, but often the civic virtues have been defined in patriotic terms. Although some today may see patriotic rhetoric as conservative, it was fundamental to left-wing revolutionary republican movements, from France in 1789 to Mexico in 1910 to Russia in 1917. According to the PACE data, patriotism polls far better among Republicans than among Democrats: a 36-point gap. (See below.)

“Liberty” was the great principle for classical republicanism, and it polls better among Republicans than Democrats. However, some Americans may think of liberty as non-interference (simply being left alone), whereas for classical republicans, it meant non-domination (freedom from arbitrary will). This semantic ambiguity makes the result hard to interpret.

Both parties like “unity,” which was a classical republican value, but Democrats like “diversity” much more than Republicans do. Classical republicans tended to be skeptical of diversity. Therefore, either Democrats dissent from classical republicanism on this issue, or else the word “diversity” is being used in a new way–basically to mean racial equity, which Democrats like much more than Republican do: a 22-point gap. Classical republicans should have embraced racial equity, even though few actually did.

Republics require participation, also known as civic engagement, and that phrase is more popular among Democrats than Republicans.

Democracy is compatible with republicanism, although proponents of democracy tend to emphasize majority rule and responsiveness to mass opinion, whereas republicans want voting to play the limited role of checking elite domination. Madison writes, “If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views, by regular vote” (Federalist 10). In this passage and many others, he’s defining “republican” as majoritarian, but his own overall view is more complex. Democrats are more favorable to the word “democracy” than Republicans are, according to the PACE data, although a majority of Republicans do support it.

On balance, one might conclude that today’s Democrats are more republican than Republicans are; but perhaps it’s more accurate to regard the classical republican tradition as marginal all across our spectrum.

PACE infographic

Source: Melvin Rogers, “Race, Domination, and Republicanism,” in Difference without Domination: Pursuing Justice in Diverse Democracies, edited by Danielle Allen and Rohini Somanathan (University of Chicago Press 2020). See also introducing republicanism; James Madison in favor of majority rule; every Republican president [until Trump] insisted that the US is a democracy; a Democratic Republican Federalist; what defines conservatism?; liberals, conservatives, and love of the Constitution etc.

what Americans think about teaching controversy in schools

Anna Saavedra, Meira Levinson, and Morgan Polikoff report some results from the August-September Understanding America Study that reveal what Americans believe about teaching controversial issues in schools. The sample is 3,751 representative adults, and the survey is a high-quality instrument that I have previously used myself.

The headline is that Americans broadly agree about discussing many issues that might be considered controversial in high school. There is consensus about the value of discussing issues from slavery to local politics, and from sex education to the environment–plus the contributions of both the founders and women and people of color. There are no meaningful differences by political party on those items. It also doesn’t matter how most of the issues are named. For example, similar proportions support discussing “limiting immigration” and “immigration rights,” or “2nd amendment” and “gun control.”

There is much less agreement about discussing sexual orientation and related issues. Democrats are strongly supportive; Republicans oppose. The whole sample is less supportive of teaching controversial issues at all in elementary school, and there again, issues related to sexuality and gender get the lowest support.

See also public opinion on Critical Race Theory; Teaching Honest History: a conversation with Randi Weingarten and Marcia Chatelain; etc.

the next two years

Last spring, I noted that my own predictions for US politics had been badly wrong. I doubt that anyone was interested in the reliability of my crystal ball, but it can be useful to lay out one’s own expectations, test them against reality as events unfold, and then reflect on why you were right or wrong.

In that spirit, I currently expect Republicans to win the House–and quite likely the Senate–and to sweep more really extreme characters into state and federal office. I think the outlines of current federal policy will then remain basically unchanged, because Biden will be able to veto Republican bills, and the House GOP has a poor recent record of even mustering the votes on its own side. There may, however, be hair-raising showdowns over the debt limit and annual must-pass appropriations.

State policies will vary, with red states and blue states heading in opposite directions on abortion, policing, climate, education, and other key issues.

The Supreme Court will probably ban the use of race as a consideration in university admissions. That will not only have a major impact on who attends college (which is the main issue) but will also begin a deluge of litigation to investigate and alter pervasive practices within higher education. Documents will be subpoenaed; people will be deposed.

The Supreme may also gut the Clean Water Act and could decide Moore v. Harper in a way that allows legislatures to override the’ decisions in presidential elections, which would throw the 2024 election into grave question.

We are headed into a recession. That will cause social needs and dissatisfaction to rise and tax revenues to fall.

The probability of an international crisis is reasonably high, not only in Ukraine/Russia but also China/Taiwan and Iran. Justice may prevail in each of those cases, but the risks to the people of those regions and the world are serious.

At home, we will see more frequent acts of overt political violence and perhaps some really major politically motivated crimes.

Trump will be running for president, first unofficially and then as a declared candidate. He will easily dominate the GOP primary. Meanwhile, there is a substantial probability that he will face at least one criminal proceeding. He will use his prosecution as evidence of persecution by his political enemies.

Echoing the Clinton and Obama years, the new Republican majority will grow rapidly unpopular. Biden’s popularity will be suppressed by the recession but boosted by his opponents: Trump and the Hill GOP. Democrats will help to amplify the most extreme Republican voices. Biden will poll ahead of Trump through most of the 2024 election season, but there will be a real possibility that state legislatures and the US House will overrule the voters, especially if the Supreme Court exempts legislatures from judicial review regarding elections. Certainly, Trump will pre-announce that he cannot possibly lose, and a fair number of Republicans will echo that claim. I believe there would be resistance within the GOP, but that would be an intra-party struggle that would make everyone else into bystanders.

(By the way, if I did the math right, then according to the Social Security Administration’s actuarial tables, there’s a 73% chance that both Biden and Trump will still be alive in 2025, and a lower chance that both men will be healthy enough to serve.)

My predictions may be too pessimistic. Last time, I was overly positive. Regardless of how things play out, I’d offer two thoughts about addressing our situation.

First, a lot more Americans should be learning specific skills for organized nonviolent civil resistance. I am not arguing that nonviolence is morally superior or preferable in all situations. I do believe that only large-scale movements that are predominantly nonviolent will be relevant and plausibly effective in defense of democracy in the United States at this point. Here are few resources for learning. I am actually quite optimistic that the American people will prove hard to dominate and will resist effectively, but skills will help.

Second, we may have opportunities to build a better system, not merely preserve a flawed one. For instance, the Supreme Court has already played a problematic role in our government, and a crisis may be an opportunity for basic reform.

To take one example of a very bad-case scenario: Biden actually wins more Electoral College votes than Trump does in 2024, but several state legislatures award their votes to Trump, and the House certifies him as the president. That would be the beginning, not the end, of a chapter in American democracy. The end would depend on us.

See also: how I misjudged our moment; time again for civic courage; how to respond, revisited; reforms for a broken Supreme Court; etc.

introducing republicanism

This is a 12.5-minute video in which I introduce the republican tradition (or just “republicanism”) as it is typically discussed in political theory these days. I’m drawing on authors like G.J.A. Pocock, Quentin Skinner, Philip Pettit, and Ian Shapiro. I also refer to Melvin Rogers’ important recent work on Black American republican thought and some ideas of Brooke Ackerly about how domination (which is the main concern of republican theorists) may relate to oppression. In our Introduction to Civic Studies course, we will be reading and discussing Rogers, so an immediate purpose of my video is to give our students some definitions that they can use to understand his work. But I hope that the video may be useful for others as well.

See also citizens against domination; what republic means, revisited; civility as equality; what to do about the guy behind the desk; civic republicanism in medieval Italy: the Lucignano council frescoes (etc.)

Moses and Akiva (and the US Constitution)

Last week, in a course I am co-teaching on Religious Pluralism and Civic Life, we discussed a fascinating story from The Jerusalem Talmud (completed before 400 CE), with help from my Tufts colleague Yonatan Brafman:

§ Rav Yehuda [Judah bar Ezekiel, 220–299 CE] says that Rav [Abba Arikha 175–247 CE] says: When Moses ascended on High [to Mount Sinai], he found the Holy One, Blessed be He, sitting and tying crowns on the letters of the Torah [kether or decorative tags added to specific Hebrew letters]. Moses said before God: Master of the Universe, who is preventing You from giving the Torah without these additions? God said to him: There is a man who is destined to be born after several generations, and Akiva ben Yosef [50-135 CE] is his name; he is destined to derive from each and every thorn of these crowns mounds upon mounds of halakhot [laws and ordinances]. It is for his sake that the crowns must be added to the letters of the Torah.

Moses said before God: Master of the Universe, show him to me. God said to him: Return behind you. Moses went and sat at the end of the eighth row in Rabbi Akiva’s study hall and did not understand what they were saying. Moses’ strength waned, as he thought his Torah knowledge was deficient. When Rabbi Akiva arrived at the discussion of one matter, his students said to him: My teacher, from where do you derive this? Rabbi Akiva said to them: It is a halakha transmitted to Moses from Sinai. When Moses heard this, his mind was put at ease, as this too was part of the Torah that he was to receive.

Moses returned and came before the Holy One, Blessed be He, and said before Him: Master of the Universe, You have a man as great as this and yet You still choose to give the Torah through me. Why? God said to him: Be silent; this intention arose before Me. Moses said before God: Master of the Universe, You have shown me Rabbi Akiva’s Torah, now show me his reward. God said to him: Return to where you were. Moses went back and saw that they were weighing Rabbi Akiva’s flesh in a butcher shop [bemakkulin], as Rabbi Akiva was tortured to death by the Romans [for teaching the Torah]. Moses said before Him: Master of the Universe, this is Torah and this is its reward? God said to him: Be silent; this intention arose before Me.

Menachot 29b, in The William Davidson digital edition of the Koren Noé Talmud, with commentary by Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, via

When Moses magically enters Akiva’s classroom (maybe 1500 years in the future), he chooses to sit in the back row, like an apprehensive freshman, and then feels his confidence slip even further when he realizes that he cannot follow the sophisticated conversation. This is a metaphor for intellectual progress and growing expertise.

But then, when Akiva’s authority is challenged, the rabbi credits everything he knows to Moses (or to the commandments that Moses that had received on Sinai), which is a metaphor for original revelation. Akiva is saying that everything was already known at the beginning of the tradition.

At the moment that Moses experiences his vision of Akiva’s classroom, he has not yet received the Torah and does not know its content. He is consoled by the thought that the text that he will receive will “contain” Akiva’s interpretations of it.

The frame text (“Rav Yehuda says that Rav says …”) alerts us to the chain of pronouncements and commentary that is central to Judaism–and to many, if not all, intellectual and spiritual traditions. Ideas come from sources. Interpreters analyze and interpret these ideas, building larger bodies of thought that derive authority from their origins even when they no longer express the founders’ intentions.

One could say the same of US constitutional law. In that tradition, too, it is common to think that the founders would be bewildered by contemporary legal arguments, or that everything we argue today is somehow contained in the founding documents–or both. We might imagine:

The ghost of James Madison went and sat at the back of Larry Tribe’s Harvard con-law lecture class and didn’t understand what anyone was talking about. He ducked low in his seat in case Tribe decided to cold-call him. Madison was relieved when Tribe suddenly mentioned him as the “Father of the Constitution.”

To doubt that there is–or ought to be–any link between the founding and the present is to dispute the value of the whole framework.

At some point, it’s natural to ask why such an edifice exists, as Moses does when he asks about the “reward” of Torah. According to tradition, Akiva was tortured to death for refusing to stop teaching scripture, which dramatizes this question. The answer is: “Be silent; this intention arose before Me.” In other words: “Don’t ask.” Even the divine voice is passive, as if the “intention” arose of its own volition.

At the base of the structure is obligation, not choice–or so this Talmudic story suggests. Is that always the case?

See also: scholasticism in global context; the relevance of American civil religion to K-12 education; is everyone religious?;  a Hegelian meditation

active church membership may counteract problematic religious messages

On one hand, I am concerned about the phenomenon of white Christian nationalism in the United States. In some churches and religious networks, some people believe that the nation ought to be fundamentally white and Christian and that Christianity somehow undergirds this idea. White Christian nationalism competes with more emancipatory and inclusive theological views, but it’s influential.

On the other hand, I am still drawn to the old, Tocquevillian argument that participating in the governance of an organization that contains any diversity can teach skills and values of deliberation, tolerance, and inclusion. And churches can be such organizations.

Therefore, I am worried about people who identify as white and Christian without actually participating in maintaining communities or wrestling with the complexities required by self-government. At the same time, I am cautiously optimistic that asking people to take responsibility for real religious communities will strengthen democracy, because members can learn how to hold a group together, manage disagreements, select good leaders, interact with outsiders, and hold each other accountable.

Thus I would hypothesize that:

  • H1 Identifying as a white Christian will be associated with racial anxiety and intolerance, because white Christian dominance is threatened today by growing racial diversity and greater equality. But …
  • H2 Participating in groups that offer an element of self-governance will promote democratic values and therefore should correlate negatively with racial anxiety. (Especially if the group is diverse).

Churches are manifestations of Christian identity and places where some people receive racialized messages, but they are also groups that can offer various degrees of diversity and self-governance. Therefore:

  • H3 Among whites, church membership (a proxy for Christian identity) will be associated with racial anxiety and intolerance. However,
  • H4 Controlling for religious identity as well as race, church participation will be associated with higher tolerance. (This hypothesis is similar to the findings of Ekins 2018.)

Nationally representative survey data collected by Data for Progress from August 4-30, 2022 offer a chance to test these hypotheses. The sample is 1,899 likely voters (who differ from non-voters in the US resident population). The survey asks several questions about religious belief, identity, attendance, and participation.

The survey also asks several attitudinal questions about diversity. I chose: “It would bother me if, one day, white people were an ethnic minority in the United States.” I will label disagreement with that prompt “inclusiveness,” for the sake of using one word.*

Two limitations of the survey: It doesn’t ask about the diversity of respondents’ religious congregations or which religion people belong to. However, 94% of white Americans who identify as religious are Christian (2% are Jewish), so a relatively modest error results from assuming that white religious respondents are Christian and their congregations are churches.

I have run Ordinary Least Squares (OLS) regressions to predict inclusiveness based on various other questions in the survey and to test the four hypotheses stated above.

H1 is correct: The importance of religion to a person is negatively correlated with their inclusiveness (when controlling for demographics). Being white, over 45, and not being college educated are also negatively associated with inclusiveness in this model.

Another way to look at the same pattern is to restrict the sample to whites (most of whom are either Christian or non-religious) and omit race from the regression. For whites, being religious, over 45, and not college educated are negatively associated with inclusiveness.

H2 is not correct: Contrary to what de Tocqueville or Dewey might predict, a person’s total number of active group memberships is negatively associated with inclusiveness. The more groups you actively participate in, the less likely you are to accept whites becoming a minority. This relationship is statistically significant but small. When looking only at whites, the relationship is no longer significant, but it isn’t positive, as I would have hoped.

Different group memberships evidently have different relationships with racial anxiety. The bivariate correlation between religious-congregation membership and inclusiveness is -.058** (Pearson), but no other forms of membership are correlated to a significant extent with this outcome. In a regression with group memberships as the only independent variables (i.e., without demographics), religious groups and sports are negatively correlated with inclusiveness; art groups are positively related.

H3 is correct: Being a member of a religious congregation is associated with less inclusiveness (controlling for demographics).

H4 is correct: Religious participation helps.

In a model that includes prayer, attendance, religiosity, congregational membership, and religious participation, membership has a significant positive correlation with inclusiveness, whereas religiosity is a negative correlate. When looking at whites only, congregational membership is a positive; religiosity and attendance are negative.

The previous sentence is my takeaway. For white Christians, being actively involved in a church builds the values that we need for a pluralistic democracy. At the same time, simply identifying as Christian and hearing Christian messages is associated with intolerant values. We need the first effect to outweigh the second one, and that is a struggle in an era when most associations (including churches) have weakened while mass and social media have expanded.

*Data for Progress actually ran a survey experiment and asked some people whether they would be bothered and others whether they would not be bothered. This difference in question-wording yielded somewhat different results. I combined the two items into one measure.

See also: churchgoing and Trump; the relevance of American civil religion to K-12 education; the Dutch secret; the prospects for an evangelical turn against Trump.

Challenges Reported by Candidates for Local Office

Newly published: Peter Levine & David Abromowitz, “Challenges Reported by Candidates for Local Office,” State and Local Government Review (2022). Available behind a paywall: or in page proofs as open access here.


A survey of 711 candidates for local offices in the United States, conducted in December 2021, reveals that many were concerned before they began their campaigns about the impact of politics on their work and family, the time demands of campaigning, their ability to raise funds, and their knowledge of the process, among other obstacles. Many candidates who had anticipated each concern found it less onerous than they had expected. Those who were parents, those with full-time jobs, and those who had experienced poverty as children were especially likely to have difficulty meeting work and family obligations while campaigning. Being liberal, being young, having less education, and experiencing poverty in childhood were all associated with concerns about being qualified to run. The study offers additional details about which backgrounds and experiences are associated with specific challenges in local campaigns. The results may inform efforts to recruit and support underrepresented candidates.

Table 6 (“Predictors of Concerns”) summarizes some key findings. It is based on statistical models that account for other factors.

Our paper is an example of Civically Engaged Research (CER) in political science: “an approach to inquiry that involves political scientists collaborating in a mutually beneficial way with people and groups beyond the academy to co-produce, share, and apply knowledge related to power or politics, contributing to self-governance.”* David Abromowitz is a leader of the the New Power Project, which is “uniquely focused on recruiting and empowering values-driven individuals who have grown up in marginalized or underserved communities” to run for office. David approached me with the idea of conducting a survey of current candidates, drawing the sample from BallotReady. We designed the survey instrument together. I crunched the numbers, addressing David’s queries as well as my own. Our article illustrates that civically or community-engaged research is not always qualitative or hands-on. Although we statistically analyzed an anonymous survey, our collaboration was essential, and the results should help the New Power Project while contributing to the scholarly literature.

*Rasmussen, A., Levine, P., Lieberman, R., Sinclair-Chapman, V., & Smith, R. (2021). Preface. PS: Political Science & Politics, 54(4), 707-710. doi:10.1017/S1049096521000755. See also: civically engaged research in political science; engaged theory and the construction of community; how to keep political science in touch with politicsmethods for engaged research.

the Iran crisis and literature on nonviolent uprisings

I wish I could follow the uprisings in Iran more closely and insightfully, but my background knowledge is limited and news coverage in English is scanty. I must admit that the regime’s victory over mass nonviolent protests in 2011-2012 made me pessimistic, especially since that turned out to be the first in a series of victories by repressive regimes. The global success rate for nonviolent social movements has fallen from near 70% in the 1990s to under 30% in the past decade, probably because authoritarian governments have improved their tactics.

That said, pessimism can be self-fulfilling. Turning trend-lines into predictions squelches agency and hope. Successful revolutionaries are not determinists. Walter Benjamin wrote in 1940, “The awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode is characteristic of the revolutionary classes at the moment of their action.” One never knows when masses of people will find inspiration in selected moments from the past and disrupt the patterns of recent history.

The literature on social movements and popular uprisings may offer some insights. That literature suggests that we should focus on certain recent developments in Iran.

The protests appear widespread, highly decentralized, and attractive to a diverse range of Iranians, including students, merchants, oil workers, and ethnic minority groups. In the literature, both the size and the pluralism of protests are related to their odds of success. (The “s” and “p” in my SPUD framework stand for those two factors.)

The movement appears capable of coordinating across a large country even though Iran has shut down the Internet and the protesters do not follow a few charismatic (and hence vulnerable) national leaders.

There are preliminary reports of some soldiers and police joining protests. Although “security force defection” has not occurred yet at substantial scale in Iran, it is a recognized phenomenon in popular uprisings. Chenoweth and Stephan (2011) found that nonviolent movements have been 46 times more likely to succeed when some members of the security forces defect. Anisin (2020) identifies “the size of the oppositional campaign (100,000+ participants)” as a common precondition of security force defection. One recent example was in neighboring Armenia in 2018.

There are also some preliminary reports of possible fissures within the regime, with (for instance) a “Hardline Chief Justice Call[ing] For ‘Dialogue With People’.” The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is said to be “gravely ill,” and his office may represent a power vacuum.

I believe that whether to use violence is a matter of judgment that depends on the circumstances, yet movements generally benefit by imposing restraints on their own behavior. Unrestrained tactics tend to escalate in ways that can damage or split a movement. Refraining from physical violence against human targets–or refusing to use live ammunition–can be bright lines that prevent such escalation. So far, the Iranian protesters seem to be using nonviolence as a self-imposed restraint.

By the way, a movement can be nonviolent despite scattered exceptions. Indeed, a mass movement that is predominantly nonviolent can benefit from the pressure imposed by parallel military movements. In the current case in Iran, several armed insurgencies are underway that may prove synergistic with the civilian protests.

Women play a disproportionate role in the Iranian protest movement. Women have certain strategic assets for social movements. For one thing, their activism can present “an apolitical appearance” that allows them to “engage in more political forms of resistance” without seeming to threaten the state’s monopoly on violence, as my colleague Anjuli Fahlberg notes in her study of Rio (Fahlberg 2018).

So far, we are seeing a familiar cycle: violent state repression instigates broader and more intense popular protest, which create dilemmas for the security forces and may initiate a downward spiral for the regime. That was the pattern in Paris in 1789 and also in Tehran in 1979, when every time the Shah’s regime killed protesters, the vast funeral processions turned into new expressions of popular will. Of course, it was also the pattern in Syria in 2011, with an ultimately tragic outcome.

Overall, I would be looking–and hoping–for scale and diversity, security force defections, self-imposed limitations, and acts of repression that stimulate even broader resistance. Success is far from inevitable but remains possible.

Citations: W. Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940), trans. by Harry Zohn, xv; Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011; Alexei Anisin (2020) Unravelling the complex nature of security force defection, Global Change, Peace & Security, 32:2, 135-155; Fahlberg, A. N. (2018). Rethinking Favela Governance: Nonviolent Politics in Rio de Janeiro’s Gang Territories. Politics & Society46(4), 95–110. See also: people power in Iran (2009); why autocrats are winning (right now); Why Civil Resistance Works; the case for (and against) nonviolence; pay attention to movements, not just activists and events; etc.